Scene opens to women sitting in restaurant with a man
Man: What are you going to order?
Woman: looks up from the menu with palpable alarm I’m not sure. There- I don’t see anything that I am in the mood for.
Man Come on, why don’t you get the chicken? You were just saying how you were in the mood for it the other day.
Woman: looks away I’m not in the mood for it anymore. (thinks to herself ‘Cant he back off already? Geez’) Maybe I’ll just get the salad.
Man: Come one. You haven’t had enough protein today. begins to look mildly irritated
Waiter: Are you two ready to orde-
Woman: No! So sorry but we just need a few more minutes.
Woman: to man in a harsh whisper I’m sorry but there isn’t anything on here with protein that I’m into.
Man: Stop letting your eating disorder win. Get what you want. Come on, we can share it if you want.
Woman: UGH Please don’t play therapist with me. I’m not even hungry anymore. Come on lets just leave.
Waiter: Ok, ready to order now you two?
Woman and man glare at each other in heavy, heated silence
Relationships are complicated. Throw an eating disorder in there and it really gets complicated. While the above-mentioned scene no longer occurs with anything close to that amount of panic or intensity, this is a more than accurate play-by-play of most meals out that I had with my husband when we were dating, and the eating disorder was in full swing. As you can see, it was a difficult time for both of us.
The thing about being in a relationship with someone who has an eating disorder is that, despite the sufferer’s best intentions and efforts, you are not a dyad. The eating disorder is always there, the annoying third wheel that seems to pop up everywhere from dates, to family gatherings, to the bedroom. When my husband and I were dating, I will admit that my ED ruined more days than not. I was constantly preoccupied and obsessed with food, weight, and physical activity. In short, I was not a great partner. I didn’t have the ability to be at that time. If I am being honest, my eating disorder was probably more my partner than he was. I loved him. I don’t really buy that saying that you cant love someone until you love yourself because I did. I loved him more than anything. I think the saying would be more accurately worded if it said “You cannot properly show someone that you love them until you love yourself.” Because at that time, while I swear I loved him with all of my heart, when it came down to the wire I put my eating disorder first every.single.time. And I hated myself for doing so. I just didn’t feel that I had any control over it. Every time he asked me out to dinner I had to choose between turning him down and feeling guilty about that, or going and feeling guilty about the food. In reality the wrath of my ED voice was 1000 times worse than the guilt that I could ever have about anything else.
Luckily, with much time and treatment, I got well. It was a conscious choice, over and over again, every single day. And he stuck with me. I still have trouble understanding how he endured this, and why he decided to put faith in my ability to recover and become a real person again in our relationship, but he did. And here we are, years later, married, happy, and a true dyad. ED no longer has a place in our home.
The emotional toll that my ED took on my husband both during the phase when I was actively disordered, as well as when I was going through recovery, was huge. Eating disorders are incredibly insidious and all-encompassing. Though I tried my hardest to play the magician, to keep a front of being perfectly fine and perky on the outside, while falling apart on the inside, it just didn’t work this way. The ED had tentacles, and I had no idea at the time how much the effects radiated out and rippled into those around me. I was consumed by ED, so I couldn’t and didn’t see the pain that others were experiencing. During the hardest times, I was drowning, and, because he cared enough about me to stick around, I was pulling him down with me. But don’t take my word for it. Best if you can hear it from him:
*I like calling it ED. I was so happy when the therapist explained it this way to me because it showed me that I wasn’t crazy. She was totally different when ED was in control. I don’t want to call her a monster or anything, but when ED was around, she seriously become a different, hardened person- she became cold, calculating, and distant. She did bad things, like steal money from me for laxatives. At the worst of it she seemed to almost consciously change her outside appearance to reflect her inside experience- she wore huge black shirts with tights and, of course, her body changed and became completely foreign to me. Gone was the beautiful, athletic, fun-loving brunette. Here instead, was this frighteningly angular cold little person who rarely smiled. I think that was the worst of it actually- the way her smile changed. It became a “not-smile.” She smiled without her eyes. Now you should know, my wife is beautiful. She is smart as hell, and she cares more about people than anyone that I have ever met in my life. She is compassionate, funny, ridiculously sarcastic, and her smile lights up my day. Her eyes crinkle at the edges when she does and I swear that smile could pull me out of a coma. But like I said, when her eating disorder took over, her entire personality changed. She was a shell. Very sad, very angry, and very lost.
But you know what? I stuck around. I went to interventions for her with her family. I held her hands while she cried and cried before going to treatment. I attended the therapy sessions and I learned about the meal plans. I encouraged her to eat (You take a bite I take a bite). The whole thing was a test of my patience, and I learned more about what I was capable of at that time than I have at any other point in my life because it was the most difficult thing that I ever experienced. When she wasn’t eating, I was obsessed with getting her to eat. I begged. I got angry. We fought constantly. There were periods of feeling hopeless. “You look nice” was triggering, but not saying anything at all seemed to be triggering too. Sometimes it just felt like my hands were tied. Some days I felt like I had to recover with her. The hard thing was that when she got out of treatment, she had been through months of intensive therapy, whereas I hadn’t had any. So I kind of had to play catch up. But in the end it was all worth it, because slowly, day by day, week by week, I got my girlfriend back. And being the support for her through that has only made us stronger. Storms and trees with roots and all that, you know? *
So for the partner of someone struggling- Remind yourself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It can be an exhausting experience, but don’t give up on your person. Their eating disorder likely has them convinced that they are not worth fighting for, so keep that in mind when you find yourself falling into the trap of feeling like your partner is intentionally trying to be difficult. Make sure that you take time for your own personal self-care. Remind your partner constantly that you wont give up if they do not. Strive to be a pillar of support as they work towards recovery, because if you do, their chances of being able to recover completely will be even stronger. And always remember- ED tires of consistent effort, vulnerability, and support from others, so keep up the fight! Recovery will happen, and with it will come healing for both of you.